What Do You Own

When you purchase a computer do you own it? What about your cell phone? Or your automobile? At one time the answer to these questions was an absolute yes. Today, not so much:

Cars, refrigerators, televisions, Barbie dolls. When people buy these everyday objects, they rarely give much thought to whether or not they own them. We pay for them, so we think of them as our property. And historically, with the exception of the occasional lease or rental, we owned our personal possessions. They were ours to use as we saw fit. They were free to be shared, resold, modified, or repaired. That expectation is a deeply held one. When manufacturers tried to leverage the DMCA to control how we used our printers and garage door openers, a big reason courts pushed back was that the effort was so unexpected, so out of step with our understanding of our relationship to the things we buy.

But in the decade or so that followed those first bumbling attempts, we’ve witnessed a subtler and more effective strategy for convincing people to cede control over everyday purchases. It relies less—or at least less obviously—on DRM and the threat of DMCA liability, and more on the appeal of new product features, and in particular those found in the smart devices that make up the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).

I’ve annoyed many electrons criticizing the concept of intellectual property. The idea that somebody has a government granted monopoly on something simply because they were the first to receive a patent is absurd in my opinion. But we live with much more absurd ideas today. Due to the way software copyright and patent laws work, if a company loads software onto a device they can effectively prevent anybody from owning it. At most a buyer can acquire a limited use license for those devices.

Combining software copyright and patent laws with the Internet of Things (IoT) just amplifies this. Now there are a bunch of devices on the market that rely on continuous Internet access to the manufacturers’ servers. If the manufacture decides to drop support for the product it stops working. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) didn’t make it illegal for you to hack the device and load your own software onto it that allowed it to continue working.

Right now we’re dealing with relatively cheap IoT devices. If your $99 Internet connected thermostat stops working it sucks but it’s not something that is so expensive that it can’t be replaced. But what happens when IoT comes to, say, automobiles? What happens when critical functions on an automobile cease to work because the manufacturer decides to drop support for one of the Internet connected components. Suddenly you’re not talking about throwing away a $99 device but a machine that cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Although this scenario might sound absurd to some I guarantee that it will happen at some point if software copyright and patent laws continue to be enforced as they have been.

4 thoughts on “What Do You Own”

  1. I have been aware of the issue for some time. And also thought of the coming problems. However, I must take issue with the idea you have against intellectual property. It comes into play mostly for me around the idea of things like a musician or an author, who relies upon copyright laws to protect their intellectual property, and the income that they might generate. From there, it really is not too hard to see that a company that invests a lot of time and money developing a software product, should have the ability to protect someone else from copying and selling the product as their own. Or perhaps I am misunderstanding your position, for which I apologize.

    1. The prevalence of companies making money off of open source software demonstrates that companies don’t need erroneous intellectual property laws in order to make a profit off of their product. If you look at Red Hat, for example, it makes its money off of support contracts for open source software. There are several open source tools that I use on a daily basis where the companies make money even though they provide the software for free by providing support or other services. There’s no reason a software company needs to use the violence of the State to make money off of its work.

      Musicians make very little money off of music sales. Their primary source of income comes from merchandise and live performances. While somebody else can copy their music or put out unofficial merchandise, it’s hard for a bootleg band to impersonate a band so well that they can perform live shows and fool fans.

      Authors can also make money without relying on the State. The trick is to take the idea of advances that they already receive from publishers and expand them out to crowd sourcing. An author can post a crowd funding campaign and say, “I will release my next work after raising ‘x’ dollars.”

      Intellectual property is a fairly modern concept. Human innovation, art, etc. preceded intellectual property by millennia. It was never necessary, it only came into existence because the State wanted to profit off of other people’s ideas. Fortunately, other nations around the world are willing to ignore intellectual property laws in the name of technological advancement.

  2. Like 99% of anti-IP fanatics, including the august Stephan Kinsella, you lump copyright and patents together, when they’re polar opposites. For the nth time: a patent protects “ideas”, which very likely would be independently derived by any number of other people; therefore I agree that patents are illegitimate. Copyright, on the other hand, protects only specific implementations of ideas. Thus, if I write a spreadsheet program, you are perfectly free to write and market a competing program with all the features mine has; you’re just not free to make money selling the program I spent many man-months (if not years) writing. What possible objection could anybody have to that? From my observation, it’s mostly members of the younger “entitled generation” who whine. They want everything offered to them on terms they themselves specify, and if they don’t get it, it’s just unimaginably horrible, and the world will very soon come to an end.

    Although this scenario might sound absurd to some I guarantee that it will happen at some point.

    That’s all you’ve got: paranoia. That and an unshakable belief that the world owes you what you want exactly the way you want it.

    It really quite simple if you’re willing to step outside the endless stream of BS: if someone offers you something on terms you don’t like, DON’T BUY IT.

  3. I still disagree with you, Christopher. I worked in a steel making facility for 35 years. We made steel that went into everything from guns to jet airplane engines, to the space shuttle. We sold that steel on a per pound price. I was paid per hour. The only product I sold was that of my labor. The only product that some might have to sell is their labor also, which, unlike me, could be the work of their minds, or the music that they record. That labor is no less their own and only their own, than the manual labor that I did in that steel melting shop. And as to musicians and how they make most of their money from touring and merchandise, that is not the point. The point is that if they make a nickel from their album sales, it belongs to them, not to someone else. As a musician myself, I understand how the copyright thing works. I am free to do covers of any artist I choose. That work is MY VERSION of that song. If I decide to record that song and release it, I am obligated to pay a portion of the profits to the artist and the owner of the rights to the song, typically a record label. Here is a lawyers version of the process. http://www.masurlaw.com/3980/songs-and-records-two-types-of-music-copyrights/

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